The lower esophageal sphincter (LES) exhibits cyclical phasic contractile activity synchronous with phases II and III of the gastric migrating motor complex. Motilin has been implicated in this process, although the exact mechanism is unknown. The effect of motilin on LES pressure and on gastrointestinal myoelectric activity was examined in 8 unanesthetized opossums. Intraluminal pressure was recorded by a manometric assembly incorporating a sleeve device. Myoelectric activity was recorded from the stomach, duodenum, and jejunum via implanted electrodes. The opossum LES exhibited cyclical periods of phasic contractions synchronous with phases II and III of the gastric migrating motor complex cycle. Variations in the occurrence and magnitude of the phasic LES pressure waves paralleled the spontaneous cyclic fluctuations in the level of circulating plasma motilin. Pulse doses of exogenous motilin (25-400 ng/kg) elicited a contractile LES response that mimicked the spontaneous migrating motor complex-related phasic LES contractions. This effect was dose related with the maximal response occurring at a motilin dose of 100 ng/kg. The LES response to motilin was abolished by hexamethonium and significantly antagonized by atropine and 4-diphenylacetoxy-N-methylpiperidine methiodide, but was not affected by pirenzepine, phentolamine, or naloxone. The study findings support the hypothesis that cyclic increases in circulating endogenous motilin incorporate phasic LES as well as gastric contractile activity into the gastrointestinal migrating motor complex cycle. Motilin acts on the LES by the preganglionic stimulation of cholinergic nerves.